Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Tips for Selling the Old Family House

Many homebuyers are extremely frustrated by the dearth of available houses on the market, and that’s putting a damper on overall sales. One reason for the lack of supply is that many owners are clinging to homes they’ve owned for years.

“In a world that’s constantly changing ... your home is your safe haven. It feels comfortable and reassuringly familiar,” says Ashley Richardson, a longtime real estate agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (

But Richardson says there’s a glimmer of hope for those seeking to buy in a tight market. She says many aging baby boomers are now facing the need to liquidate, either due to financial problems or health issues or both.

She tells the true story of one such boomer -- a never-married woman in her early 70s who had to sell her small colonial property or face foreclosure.

“Letting go emotionally is terribly hard,” Richardson says.

As it worked out, the woman’s story had a positive ending. Though her house had fallen into disrepair, it was priced accordingly and sold to an investor in just one day. Within two weeks, she moved to a new retirement community suited to both her budget and health needs.

Donna Leanos, an agent who’s sold real estate for 28 years, recommends that those faced with an involuntary sale seek help from a firm that specializes in assisting with smooth transitions. Known as “move managers,” such companies offer downsizers a comprehensive package of services. They help cull through the sellers’ possessions and arrange for the sale or donation of valuables. In addition, they help handle the logistics of the move.

How can you find a move manager in your area? One way is through the website of the National Association of Senior Move Managers:

Those who need less extensive help to downsize might wish to use the services of a professional organizer. A local organizer can be found through the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals (

Here are a few pointers who must make an involuntary move:

-- Prepare as early as possible for a downsizing move.

Donna Eichelberger, who heads a move management firm for seniors, says many of her clients wait until their early 80s to make plans for a move. At that point, a health crisis can force the need for a move on an urgent basis.

She says the most successful downsizers are those who anticipate the need to move well in advance of a possible health crisis.

“The happiest people are the ones who embrace change rather than resisting it,” according to Eichelberger.

-- Allow adequate time for the purging process.

Vicki Norris, a former real estate agent and professional organizer, says it can take up to 24 hours to declutter the average room. To avoid becoming sidetracked, she says many home sellers need allies.

“It’s good to have people there to keep your move in perspective and perhaps to lend some humor into the situation,” says Norris, author of “Restoring Order to Your Home.”

Are you unable to afford professional services for your move? If so, Norris suggests you request that friends come by to at least lend moral support.

-- Ask family members if they’d like some of your memorabilia.

Older downsizers often hang onto nostalgic items they believe their grown children might want “someday.” But Norris says many parents believe their offspring will want many more things than they do -- including their childhood story books and grade-school art. Norris suggests that downsizers ask grown children what items they value.

-- Develop a memory book with photos of your place.

When Norris’ baby-boom-age parents retired and put their family home up for sale, they did so voluntarily. Even so, they found it emotionally thorny to let go of a residence where they’d lived for 28 years.

Still, the process of downsizing was eased after their listing agent gave them a book of photos showing all their rooms and furnishings just as they looked before the home was staged for sale.

“That way, they were able to seal their memories --including how the dining room table looked when their whole extended family came over for Thanksgiving dinners,” Norris says.

-- Contribute excess belongings to a charity of your choice.

As they plow through their property room-by-room, most downsizers encounter many items that crowd their space and would make it harder to market their property. In addition, they could have many things their children no longer want.

Whenever possible, Norris encourages donations of serviceable items to a nonprofit institution that will put them to good use. For instance, you could donate unused musical instruments to a school serving low-income families.

“Contribute to an organization that shares your values. That gives you a lot more peace of mind about letting go,” she says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at